IT Employment

Don't make assumptions about coworkers based on their behavior

Are you frustrated by an employee who exhibits a certain behavior? Try not to make assumptions about that person.

There are a lot of things you can control at your workplace, but a fellow employee is not one of them. You can somewhat control certain behaviors, especially if they are legally unacceptable, but you really can't control other people, only your reaction to them. This is a lesson that, if learned, could make the workplace a whole lot less stressful for many people.

I recently received a newsletter from Rick Brenner, principal of Chaco Canyon Consulting, and was struck by something he said about conflict in the office:

When people say (or don't say) things, or do (or don't do) things, we make meaning out of what we observe. Our observations are inherently incomplete, because we don't know what's actually happening for other people.

This is, on the surface, a simple observation, but if you think about it, it could be the root of a lot of issues between co-workers. What we often think is another's personality quirk may just be our interpretation of his or her behavior, based on our own emotional baggage.

For example, I think we've all worked with someone who seems to have an insufferable ego. It has been my experience, however, that much of the time the behavioral cues that seem to indicate a big ego come rather from a place of deep insecurity. Since it's really hard to further bolster someone who seems egotistical, we treat that person with a dismissive attitude in what we do and say. And that, of course, just makes the whole thing worse.

That's kind of a broad example but it's just the tip of the iceberg. You may work with someone who is very curt and impatient and you interpret that behavior as disrespect toward yourself. But maybe that person is battling a chronic health problem or is in the mother of all dysfunctional relationships and his or her outward behavior has nothing to do with you. (Now, if he's nice to everyone BUT you, it could be a different story. )

Also, how you interpret someone's personality can have a lot to do with your personal experience. Have you ever met someone who happens to look like someone else who you don't like very much? And something unconscious happens and you transfer the bad feelings to this new person who has done nothing but bear a physical resemblance to someone else? You have to consciously (at least I do) counter the gut feeling you have, and wipe the slate clean. You've heard people say, "I know her type" haven't you? It's the same kind of deal.

Since the workplace places us in proximity to people we may never get to know beyond a superficial level, you have to be careful of making any assumptions. This will also make you a happier person.

This blog post is also available as a PDF download.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

23 comments
highlander718
highlander718

everybody has problems sometime, one has a surgery, the other might have some personal issues and it is all understandable if they are not in a good mood some days. But understanding stops when and if they are trying to take their problems out on their colleagues, being impolite, rude or a jerk in one word. And let's face it, some people are just jerks by default :-)

mdtallon
mdtallon

Thank you for reminding us all that the overwhelming bulk of all that we do in our lives, at work and also outside of it, is interacting with other people, and perspective can make all the difference, since that's all that we really have. I heard a line last night that sums it up: "Change the way you think about someone." Very simply put, but it speaks volumes.

darpoke
darpoke

I'd just like to concur with the general tone of these comments in saying what a well thought-out, helpful piece I found this article to be. Good job, Toni!

GregKasarik
GregKasarik

I've been using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as a way of understanding different people's quirks. It helps greatly when people in a workplace can relate to each other with this as a foundation. For example, I am a highly creative person, who loves coming up with ideas and starting on new and exciting projects. I also hate being tied down with red tape and what are to me, pointless administrative requirements. My boss on the other hand is the opposite and seeks to control every aspect of her work environment, including me. This lead to some significant clashes between us, but we were able to sit down and talk it through, using the MBTI as a framework. You see, she is highly "Judging", whereas I am the opposite, being highly "Perceiving" on this scale and we were each able to recognise that our differences arose from perfectly valid, yet incompatable personality differences. We were then able to negotiate a solution to our issues, that recognised both our needs in the workplace, without making either of us feel as if we were sacrificing ourselves. Over the years, I've discovered that many annoying behaviours in the workplace are simply to do with a person's personality and the MBTI can provide an excellent window into these. For those who are interested, there is a free online test that is quite useful. http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/JTypes1.htm

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

The procedure left me with an 8" incision on my abdomen. Several people thought I was upset with them due to to the fact that I stayed in my office as much as possible and had typically short conversations. I was experiencing some pretty intense pain most of the time so I simply didn't have much to talk about other than "How many prescription narcotics can you take at work without drooling?"

DMambo
DMambo

Hmmm, are you saying don't judge people by what they do and say? What's the alternative? Judge them by the color of their skin, their accents or their religions? There's really little else we can use to judge people by other than their actions. If a person is consistently surly, I would judge him to be a cranky sourpuss (like me!). If a person rarely talks, then I would judge him to be shy or introverted. I think it might make more sense to say to be aware of changes in a person's behaviors or not make assumptions based on a limited number of observations. But if you have a chatty smiler in the workplace, then I think it's safe to say that you're dealing with a sunny disposition.

merychan
merychan

Thanks for the article! Let's make the workplace a better place.

dongould
dongould

Good reminder. Each of us bring our own world view to every interaction we have. We can't help it, but we can learn to manage it. For example, everyone has a story, a why they are that way. Instead of judging out of hand, decide to be curious about the why. It helps to avoid telling yourself the wrong story.

david.walker2
david.walker2

I once worked with a guy who told me, after we'd worked together for a few months, "When you first started with the company, I thought you were loud, arrogant, and obnoxious, and swore I'd never work with you. But now that I've gotten to know you, I realize you do know what you're talking about." So, first impressions are first impressions, but they may be off-base. Allow room for revision.

nonimportantname
nonimportantname

And this much has been conveyed to me in a few reviews that I've had at my current job. My superior has informed me on a few occasions that a couple of people view me as curt or dismissive. By nature, I am a very quiet and reserved man that can talk your ear off when piqued. But also by nature, I'm strictly business when it comes to solving problems and I need answers to questions right away. I sometimes ask pointed questions and also provided pointed answers, but I try to be as tactful as possible. The truth is, earlier in my employment here, I felt out of place and also disaffected with my work. I may have subconsciously let that attitude seep into my interactions with others, but I had no ill will toward anyone. Truth be told, I'd ALSO had some issues in my personal life that I was dealing with. I say all that to say this: don't let assumptions encumber your ability to first observe behaviors. Sometimes, your unfair assumptions can lead to a talented person being dismissed (his/her own choice or otherwise) unnecessarily. And to managers, try to get to the root of a perceived "personality" conflict; sometimes, it's not just the subject of the complaints that is the problem...but others perceptions and unfamiliarity with a person. And to the perceived "embattled", try not to wear your problems on your sleeve. People are able to pick up even the vaguest anxieties and might misinterpret them as something else. Now, I view both work and home life as a utopia away from one or the other; I look forward to solving problems and interacting with people at work...forgetting the problems I had in my personal life and vice versa. Being more perceptive to my own vibes and correcting my own attitude when needed also has served me well.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

this is extremely good and true advice, especially when they come from a different cultural background; and that may be as little a difference as a person from rural Georgia USA working in Chicago - there is a difference in culture and how they were brought up, and how they'll react to things. This becomes worse as the distance increases, like New York and rural France.

janstar30
janstar30

Yes, I agree. So is important to have some tolerance, patience and understanding, you'll never know exactly what problems that person have in life.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

now if only the world governments would take notice then this planet would be a far better place to live. They are full of sweeping generalizations like this that affect every one of us.

rhino777
rhino777

Why didn't you inform them of this? I'm sure most people would have understood that...

AlainKaz
AlainKaz

First off, the eternal "communication" issue. People are never (rarely) able to say what has to be said in a timely manner. Why wait for a performance review to drop a bomb like that? Why not solve the issue as it appears? Lack of courage perhaps... Second, follow-up from the boss. If I'm being told about a personality quirk, I assume that : a)It's because my boss finds it disruptive/unacceptable. He'd tell me why. b)I'd have to correct it. He'd tell me a time frame to respect. c)My boss would assist me in ways to solve said issue (Note here. Your boss is not a psychologist. He can point towards suggestions like an employee help program but cannot help directly. We have to do that, and be willing ;) ) d)There'd be a follow up to assess the progress. Last point, and the hardest, introspection!! The hardest part of all. Are we really behaving the way people are saying we are? Is it just a matter of perception or bad understanding? We have to be willing to look inside and "possibly" see the ugly in us. It's never easy, or fun, but a must unless we like being miserable for the rest of our lives. So lets all work hard at making our office lives (1/3 of our day) a more pleasant time.

reefchild
reefchild

Experience has showed me that @ first glance, the coworkers i judge or assume negativly, are a lot like me. After a short trial period these persons turn out to be my closest coworkers. Meanwhile the ones that i trusted to be the "examples to follow"..... turned out to be the cheats, the B_ _ lickers, and the backstabbers. I could only be the best that i am, day after day, and as long as i do all that is right.......everyone seems to fall into place...inclueding me.

GSG
GSG

We had a vendor who sent someone from New Jersey here to Southwest Missouri, which is smack in the middle of the Bible Belt. Well, this New Jersey vendor tended to pepper her conversations with cuss words. It was fairly normal where she was from, and she didn't think anything about it until her manager had to call her and tell her that he'd gotten a lot of complaints about her language.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Providing they can make the same assumption about you.

wbranch
wbranch

Were you intending to be ironic by making sweeping generalizations about national governments making sweeping generalizations? :)

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

Of course I did it after the fact once I found out what was happening. I don't make it a habit of running around telling people my business on a regular basis.

mafergus
mafergus

Communication has to be an iterative process. If everyone involved took that extra step most of thes issues of "perception" would go away. While I do agree that the boss has a responsibility to communicate issues with an employee, I can gaurantee there are more people involved who will never be visible to that boss/manager. I have personally selected employees because of their "quirks". Sometimes you gotta take the excellent with the slightly annoying and then work to protect that person so they can do the job that's needed. it isn't easy and often isn't fun, but it can make the difference between being successfull and spending long days and sleepless nights!

pctech1
pctech1

Fine examples of office politics highlighted here. Sometimes change that is happening in an organization will bring about certain types of behaviors, you normally wouldn't find in a regular work environment.